Florida Republicans are twisting themselves into pretzels over Arizona's extreme effort to crack down on illegal immigrants. Attorney General Bill McCollum was against it, then for it and for bringing it to Florida, then for it — but not in Florida. His opponent in the Republican primary for governor, hospital executive Rick Scott, is all for it everywhere and rips McCollum in a television ad for initially being against it. U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is all over the map: He was against it, then he was for it, then he hedged on Miami Spanish television. Now he supports it — but not in Florida.
The reason for these tortured contortions is obvious. McCollum and Rubio are trying to appeal to largely white, conservative Republican voters by embracing Arizona's new law without offending Florida's diverse population. It is impossible to do both, and they are adding fuel to a divisive debate that will make it more difficult to find real solutions to immigration issues.
The Arizona law is hugely consequential for ethnic minority communities. It effectively requires minorities to carry proof of legal status wherever they go. Every police agency must investigate the immigration status of people suspected of being undocumented aliens or risk being sued. The law's supporters contend police can ask for papers only from people stopped for another reason; critics say anyone can still be asked at any time. Even in the most favorable light, the law means Arizona police officers making a traffic stop, investigating a municipal code violation — an overgrown lawn or an open container violation — or citing someone for jaywalking are required to do an immigration check if there is suspicion of illegal status. That suspicion is likely to include skin color and speaking accent, regardless of what the law says.
Arizona's new law is a reflection of the understandable frustration Arizonans feel over the state's nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants, its porous border with Mexico and rising crime. The federal government has not adequately secured the border with Mexico or done enough to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. But Arizona's law is not the answer for the nation or for Florida. Yet with each revision and painful parsing, McCollum and Rubio are muddying their answers when voters deserve clarity. Scott deserves credit for taking a stand, even if it's the wrong one that is offensive and fails to recognize Florida's diversity.
Arizona already is feeling the backlash. The Obama administration has been appropriately critical. The NBA's Phoenix Suns wore jerseys with "Los Suns" in support of their diverse fans. The governor is rushing to avoid an economic backlash that could cost the state jobs and business investment. And Arizona knows something about the devastation of economic boycotts after its refusal to recognize a holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1990s.
The last thing Florida needs as it struggles to cope with high unemployment is an immigration fight that drives away tourists, discourages investment and angers an enormous part of the work force. The Sunshine State has welcomed Cubans, Haitians, Mexicans, Asians and all manner of immigrants. A misguided, politically motivated effort to act tough on immigration needlessly divides the state and is not the answer.